January 1, 1933– Joe Orton:
“To be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”
If you have ever been the recipient of an email or letter of outrage from “Edna Welthorpe”, I suppose I must apologize, which is not the easiest thing for me to do. Edna, who lives in the ironically named Boring, Oregon, is the stolen alter-ego of playwright, Joe Orton, one of my favorite figures from the 20th century. In the 1950s, Orton created Edna Welthorpe and he made her the guardian of public morals. Orton used the priggish Edna’s letters to goad those in authority into revealing their own innate idiocy.
Orton was not above writing letters criticizing his own plays in order to generate controversy and hence, publicity. I took up Edna’s personality in the summer of 2012, when I found myself with time on my hands, and I began to write letters and emails to publishers, film studios, and theatre companies complaining of homosexual content. Ms. Welthorpe wrote a letter to Elle Décor magazine in September 2014 outraged that the publication featured: “The residences of sodomites… can you just imagine the fluids on their walls?”. If you ever received one, please know that I felt I did what needed to be done.
If you don’t know or understand Orton’s place in Theatre History, as a jumping off place use the brilliant Stephen Frears‘ film Prick Up Your Ears (1987), with an eerie portrayal of Orton by Gary Oldman. It is based on the terrific Orton biography of the same title by John Lahr, the former The New Yorker theatre critic.
Orton, is an incredibly important figure in queer literature. He is perhaps the finest writer of farce in the 20th century, and a great stylist in the tradition of Noël Coward, Harold Pinter and George Bernard Shaw.
He was born John Kingsley Orton to working-class parents in the East Midland of England. After joining several local theatrical companies, mostly playing insignificant roles, Orton took speech coaching to get rid of his lisp and his Northern English accent. He had been a student at a business college but he wanted to be an actor. He auditioned for, and was admitted to the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts in 1951.
Orton’s move to London was a pivotal moment in his life, the beginning of his real career as an actor and playwright, and it was his introduction to a fellow RADA student named Kenneth Halliwell, who became his mentor and his lover. Halliwell encouraged Orton to read and study the world’s great literature, and he had a strong influence on the development of Orton’s creative abilities.
Orton found work as an actor and stage manager for several years. In 1960, he and Halliwell worked together on a novel, The Boy Hairdresser (1960) that failed to find a publisher. Finding no one to take their work seriously, the couple amused themselves with a series of hoaxes. This is when Orton created his alter ego Edna Welthorpe, a snobby senior citizen. He later revived her to stir up controversy about his plays.
The couple also had a hobby of humorously defacing books borrowed from public libraries and then returning them in their altered state. Orton hid the books in his satchel; Halliwell used a gas mask case. They would take them home, redo their covers and dust-jackets, and then slip them back onto the shelves. Sometimes, these alterations were quite naughty: a reader scanning a relatively tame whodunit would be confronted with a mystery even before they opened the book. One blurb described a seven-inch dick and concluded: “READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! And have a good shit while you are reading!”
They used plates from art books to decorate their tiny apartment, covering every inch in pictures, and they altered books by adding dirty photographs and surrealistic collages of musclemen and kittens, plus the pair added outrageous pornographic rewritten copy to the books’ dust jacket flaps. Orton and Halliwell were eventually caught, arrested and charged. They were sent to prison for six months in 1962. When the police raided their flat, they found thousands of loose plates and hundreds of stolen library books.
After their release, Orton began to consider himself a writer. He worked on his own novel Head To Toe (published posthumously in 1971), and kept busy writing his own plays. In 1964, the BBC produced Orton’s radio play The Ruffian On The Stair. It was then substantially rewritten and produced for the stage in 1966, receiving raves.
Orton loved the attention from the good reviews and he began to turn out new plays. Entertaining Mr. Sloane found its way to theatre agent Peggy Ramsay who produced it in 1964. Audiences were both shocked and amused. The reviews ranged from praise to outrage.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane lost money, but gay playwright Terence Rattigan, whose own works were strictly conventional, invested in it and the play was transferred to a theatre in London’s West End winning terrific reviews and awards. Within a year, Entertaining Mr. Sloane had productions in New York City, Spain, Israel, and Australia, plus it was made into a film.
Orton’s greatest play is Loot (1964), a crazy parody of detective fiction, and one of the darkest farces ever. It skillfully and entertainingly mocked the establishment’s notion of death, the police, religion, and justice.
The Beatles were fans and they engaged Orton to write a screenplay, Up Against It, for them to be directed by Richard Lester. It never was produced.
As Orton became a famous, controversial figure in the London theatre world of London, Halliwell, always an odd, withdrawn man, grew increasingly alienated and distraught, largely because of the continual rejection he faced as both a writer and as a visual artist, and because of his poor self-image as an older, heavier, and bald companion to the boyish, very hot Orton.
On August 9, 1967, Orton was bludgeoned to death in his sleep by Halliwell, who was found naked in the middle of their one room flat. His hands, chest and head were covered with Orton’s blood. He had swallowed 22 Nembutal pills, dying several hours before Orton, whose sheets were still warm when the police arrived.
The note on the desk in Halliwell’s writing read: “If you read his diary all will be explained. K.H. PS: Especially the latter part.“
The last pages of the diary were missing.
Orton’s plays continue to be produced by theatre companies around the world. Halliwell’s single play remains unproduced; all three novels that he co-wrote with Orton remain unpublished.
In delicious irony, the defaced and altered books have recently been given gallery shows, including at the Tate Britain, and one at the library that they were “borrowed” from.
I rather idolize Orton, except for that whole murder thing. His writing is anarchic, outrageous, and still shocking, which is inspiring to me.
“The kind of people who always go on about whether a thing is in good taste invariably have very bad taste.”